How Youths from Migrant Backgrounds are Driving a Cultural Shift in the West via Social Media
The young and socially active are taking on traditional media giants to tell their own stories. Producer Nadir Nahdi speaks to IOM about how youths from migrant families are driving a cultural shift in the West through social media.
Nadir Nahdi lives most of his life via social media. Coming of age in the era of the internet, he knows what it takes to amass an online audience who are interested in following his work and life. His extensive online following and activities signal an important change in the way media is produced and consumed today.
Traditional media giants are no longer the gatekeepers of what’s cool and available for viewing anymore. Nahdi’s broadcasting of his life is also part of a larger story of the way young millennials of colour are existing and curating their own stories in opposition to the wider narratives imposed on them about who they are or should be.
In New York, IOM caught up with Nahdi to talk about the internet and migration, what it means to be a child of migrant parents, issues relating to identity, storytelling, and the spaces the young and socially active are cultivating to push for more representation in the media in the West.
Nahdi was born and raised in London to parents who migrated from Kenya and grew up in a multi-ethnic house with very diverse cultural influences. His family has an expansive migration story that touches many continents he tells me. His dad is a Yemeni, Indonesian Kenyan and mom is Pakistani. His wider family is very multicultural as well and includes people from Turkey, North and East Africa and East Asia.
Storytelling: The search for His Grandmother’s Story
Nahdi’s grandmother passed away when he was just three years old. She was an Indonesian, who migrated and made a life in Kenya. After her death, much of her story and history seemed to have gone with her.
To learn more about his grandmother, Nahdi embarked on a search for her story. The result of that search is captured in his breathtaking short film “#findngnenek — The Girl with the Batik Dress”. The film details her fascinating migration story and Nahdi’s personal search to understand his very diverse heritage.
Reclaiming the narrative
Nahdi notes that social media is empowering people who never had a space to tell their own stories. Explaining the effort it takes to get diverse stories produced, Nahdi highlights that traditionally when you wanted a specific story produced the practice was that one would have to pitch to traditional media establishments, like the BBC, Channel 4, the kind of old institutions mostly run by middle aged white people, and you would go to them and say “Hey, this is a story about who I am and I think this is really important and can connect with people on a deeper level.” They would then have to validate it, like it, pass it through, and give you money to produce it. This process, he continues is one of the reasons why there was a lack representation for decades because there was never support for the stories that came from diverse communities.
When the use of social media platforms like YouTube rose in the late 00’s, it gave content producers the opportunity to empower themselves by telling stories that mattered to their communities and releasing content directly without interference of gatekeepers.
Nahdi recalls a time when a video he produced and recorded went viral globally. The year was 2014 and Pharrell’s song happy was charting number 1 in United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and 19 other countries. Nahdi got a camera and recorded a parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” music video which showed British Muslims. After uploading video to YouTube, overnight, the video got 1.4 million views. Going viral showed Nahdi that audiences were there and hungry for unique content and stories that represented them.
“I have been told that my community was not interesting enough for these views. But after doing a video like that and in 7 hours getting 1.4 million views, it showed me that there is a global community that shares my sentiment. That was a validation I needed, and YouTube provided me that space. Social media is empowering for people who never had a space. [We] don’t need you BBC, we will do it ourselves.”
Today, Nahdi spends most of his time creating content through BENI - the platform/ creative laboratory he founded to tell compelling human stories of people who felt like they never had an outlet. For him, the idea behind BENI is to make compelling, emotionally intelligent stories, from diverse communities for everyone’s consumption.
“As young people of colour in the West, we were always explaining who we were”.
Nahdi calls on young people to be curators of their own narratives.
Now PoC (people of colour) are sexy really cool things
In the context of people of colour who never felt like they had a space in media, social media has been an incredibly powerful force that has shifted the culture of mainstream media.
Whether on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, PoCs have platforms where they can find someone who can be their friend, and someone who isn’t like an unrelatable celebrity from Hollywood.
Now mainstream media has caught up, Nahdi argues; “Now PoC are sexy, really cool things. Now they want to do shows about identity, brown people, black people.”
“Yes, social media is dangerous, but social media is a tool”
Often relegated to the sphere of superficiality, social media continues to be a widely misunderstood and used medium today by billions of people, both young and old. Global social media users stand at 3.5 billion today and numbers keep growing yearly.
Nahdi argues “Yes, social media is dangerous, but social media is a tool. A knife is a tool. You can make food with it. You can cut someone with it. Ultimately, we should be asking ourselves, who are the people behind the tools, how are we developing character, moral fiber, a social media culture that uses it for more practical good use.”
West vs. East
“I travel a lot to the East and it has been such amazing outlet for me because my whole life growing up in the West, I have had to define myself by resisting narratives pushed on to me and why it’s so empowering going back home or the East is that, there isn’t that dynamic there, what people create in parts of East is something devoid of that resistance, it is something more innate, more beautiful, more creative, more expressive of who they are as individuals, it is not born out of resistance of something else. It has been empowering to see this in my travels to the East, whether its Asia, Africa or the Middle East because I get lost in my resistance. I have been resisting so long it has become part of my identity.”
“I want to know. I need to know”
Migrants know who they are when they settle in new countries. Their children, however, who have a foot in various worlds, often struggle with their identities as Nahdi reveals. There is a desire among children of migrants to know who they are. “When people ask me where I am from, I am from London, a part of me is British, and I feel British, but there is this culture of subtle institutional reminders that you are not ‘British-British’ which initiated the search for perhaps there is someplace else where 100 per cent I do belong,” Nahdi says.
Elaborating, he notes “when they say you are not part of this fabric that makes Britishness, it is stuff like lack of representation in media and even when there is representation it draws on most mundane stereotypical elements of our culture and makes us look a certain way we are not. There isn’t any nuance, there isn’t effort to represent us in the cultural, diverse ways we are. Growing up my role model was Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Even between me and Will Smith there is a huge difference. But that is all I had.”
Nahdi wants to challenge children of migrants to start thinking about the culture they will leave to the next generation. “I don’t want that resistance to be the core of their identity,” he notes.
He concludes with a very existential question that youths from a migrant background who have grown up in the West should ask themselves, “If you take away all the post-colonial hang-ups, who are you? What is your culture?”
Nadir Nahdi spoke to Abdirahman Olow, IOM Office to the United Nations